University at Albany Researchers Link PCBs to Respiratory Diseases

ALBANY, N.Y. -- University at Albany researchers have found a link between respiratory diseases and New York State residents who live in or near hazardous waste sites containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and persistent pesticides.


The report, published this month in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology (volume 18, issue 3, 2004) studied diseases of hospitalized patients who live near hazardous waste sites containing persistent organic pollutants (POP), which include PCBs and persistent pesticides. UAlbany scientists discovered that the rates of hospitalizations due to chronic bronchitis and other infectious respiratory diseases from those sites exceeded that of the general New York State population by some 20 percent.


In order to eliminate other factors that contribute to respiratory diseases such as income, excess smoking, and lack of exercise, the researchers also investigated a separate subset of the PCB-contaminated sites by studying residents who live along the Hudson River from Hudson Falls south to Manhattan. This area has fewer smokers, higher per capita income, and better diet and exercise habits than much of the rest of the state. Scientists discovered that the frequency of hospitalization for respiratory infections of residents along the Hudson was more elevated than populations not living in or by PCB-contaminated sites.


"These observations shows us that the higher frequency of respiratory disease cannot be explained by the usual suspects of bad diet and smoking," said David O. Carpenter, an author of the study and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. "It strengthens our hypothesis that populations living by the Hudson are breathing in PCBs, which causes their immune systems to malfunction, leading to more infections."


In all, the scientists studied hospitalization statistics for 213 New York State zip codes (with a 2000 Census population of some 2.8 million) containing or abutting a POP-contaminated site. The sites were identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), as well as the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.-Canadian body that advises the two governments on issues relating to boundary waters. Of the POP sites, 78 abutted the PCB-contaminated portion of the Hudson River, which is the river south of Hudson Falls to Manhattan. They compared these hospitalization rates to 1,382 zip codes identified as clean sites, containing a 2000 population of 4.7 million.

Specifically, the results showed statistically significant increases in pneumonia, influenza, and chronic bronchitis in men and women aged 45-74, and in unclassified chronic airway obstructions in men and women over the age of 45.


"It is usually thought that exposure to POPs comes primarily from eating contaminated fish and other animal products, but our observations cannot be explained by different patterns of ingestion," said Carpenter. "Our results suggest that simply living near a contaminated site increases the risk of exposure to POPs, and that this increases the risk of infections as a result of suppression of the immune system."


In an earlier report, Carpenter showed that hospitalization for five infectious diseases of childhood was 30 percent greater in POP-contaminated areas than in clean zip codes. More recent studies have demonstrated that Dutch infants exposed to dioxins and PCBs have elevated incidence of recurrent middle-ear infections and chicken pox, and a lower prevalence of allergic reactions (Weisglas-Kuperus et al., Environ. Health Perspect. 108: 1203-1207, 2000).


Source: University at Albany